Genia Lukin's Reviews > Time and Again

Time and Again by Jack Finney
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did not like it
bookshelves: science-fiction

** spoiler alert ** I was going to give this book two stars, because until the end it was merely bland and inoffensive, about like Finney describes modern food to be. But the ending threw me into a rage, so one star it is.

Fnney's book has a few redeeming features - chiefly, his painstaking research into the period he attempts to depict. And by 'depict' I man depict, literally; the entire book is filled with photographs, newspaper cuttings, illustrations, sketches... to which the author painstakingly refers, and which he sometimes also painstakingly describes. The pain, in this instance, is not only the author's, but also the reader's, as he has to plough through debris of descriptions with the machete of 'can we please move on'.

The plot and characters begin inoffensively enough - so inoffensively, in fact, that I may have trouble, having finished the book, describing just who was who and what was what. There are a couple of bland women-love-interests, one of them less bland - and immediately discarded - and one more bland - and therefore kept. The protagonist is a man of no apparent emotional processes besides, occasionally, wonder or stupour. His falling in love with his preserved-love-interest is a complete mystery to the reader; we see none of it happening, even in terms of romantic cliches such as, well, 'lightning struck me, and I was smitten for life.'

Events are loosely connected to each other, and, if the reader is sufficiently accommodating, all sorts of things can be tolerated. For example, the existence and likelihood of millions of dollars in army financing going to a project of, pardon me, self-hypnosis. The probability that an absolutely un-second-glance-worthy twenty-something with no personality would be the most suitable person to travel through time, and the infuriating moment that comes when you realise that his then-girlfriend is, in fact, much better at this whole thing than he is, but, by virtue of being only the protagonist's girlfriend, is not recruited to the program by the starved-for-candidates leadership.

The writing, itself, pained me from the start. The writer's one virtue - meticulous research - rapidly turned into a vice, as, like with every pedantic and geeky person who has read too many books, he can not help but let the readers see just how much meticulous research he had done. On Every. Single. Page. There really is a point at which we, as the readers, do not need to hear about the draperies and curlicues in a carriage in the middle of a climactic scene, and there are only so many pages of descriptions of streets, people, and houses that one can take.

It is towards the end that my hackles started rising. Especially once the hero and his girlfriend finally (what took them so long to think about it? I was screaming at them to just time-travel out of there for about seventy pages) got to the present. The horrible horrible present, filled with air conditioners and other trivial luxurious minutiae, but apparently devoid of a single good thing to be said for it on the significant and global grand scale. Instead we are treated to the inevitable scene of "What? A World war??" from a resident of the 19th century, which had known a good number of horrible and shattering wars, including the incredibly traumatic American Civil War just twenty years previous, a whole slew of independence wars in the Spring of Nations, not to mention the entire barrage of the Napoleonic Wars which (just like the World Wars) reshaped the political and military world map and engulfed all of Europe just at the beginning of the century.

And all the author could come up with in terms of what good happened between 1882 and 1970 is.. air-conditioners.

Okay, Mr. Finney, let me give you a hand here and count a few of the mild improvements we've managed to install since that period:

-Most of the monarchies of the time are democracies now
-A good chunk of the peoples who at the time were colonial subjects have actual countries now
-When people go to a hospital, they actually stand a good chance of coming out of it alive due to antibiotics, anesthesia, and anti-sepsis practices which at the time were virtually unknown
-The Human rights movement
-The Geneva Convention
-Abolition of child labour, mandating of minimal wages and working conditions, the eight-hour workday
-The cleaning-up of police practices and brutality. That thing that sent you guys to the future in the first place? It would have a lot less chance of actually happening now.

These are just a few off-the-cuff things. Plus, we went to the moon, and if for the author it somehow seems paltry and bleak, well, that's hardly our fault.

To top it all off, the author's basic premise in the end seems to be that, if our time is broken, the best way to deal with that is to abscond into the past, where none of these events happened yet, and then pretend that they never will. How the protagonist would ever manage to live with himself, fleeing the world knowing that, only thirty years in his future, is that dreaded World-War-Eye ...they knew Roman numerals and used them more frequently than we did, by the way) he avoided thinking or talking about. The year is 1882. In 1914 he and his wife will be in their fifties and, hey presto, here is modernity, come to claim you again.

The author's message that the world of our time is not worth living in is acceptable, but instead of attempting to say something like, it needs to be fixed, or changed, or improved, maybe even brought back to past values and vigour, he says it needs to be dropped, abandoned. We've ruined our world with pollution - let's flee to the 1880s, where pollution did not exist (barring, of course, all that coal they burned that turned the air into smog over half the world). And what if time travel is not available? No answer.

And this, more than anything, is my issue. We cannot run away from an imperfect world to a romanticized - heavily, I should say - Luddite utopia of the past. If only because we can't. Finney concludes his story by extolling the virtue of running, and I cannot condone that.
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Reading Progress

December 8, 2012 – Shelved
July 4, 2013 – Started Reading
July 4, 2013 – Shelved as: science-fiction
July 10, 2013 –
page 102
July 11, 2013 –
page 202
July 12, 2013 –
page 300
July 13, 2013 –
page 400
July 13, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Margitte (new)

Margitte You express a valid point here. The expansion of human numbers makes it impossible to return to a romantic,albeit much tougher past.

message 2: by Genia (last edited Jul 14, 2013 12:30PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Genia Lukin I... don't really see the past as romantic. I think people who do are kidding themselves because they need some sort of mythos to help support their notions that the current world is intolerable, and that there was something inherently superior in the people that came before us.

Crying over the woes of modernity is something human beings have been doing for at least two millenia. It's a bit stale for me to see a person doing this in the 1970s after I've read people doing it in the 1870s, 1770, and even the 0070s.

The increase in human numbers really isn't the main thing or the only thing that bars us from going back to the past. Going back is death. The only direction to go from the present is forward, and that's how it will be. Besides, I don't want to go back to the past. I like a world where sick infants survive to adulthood, I like a world where slavery is treated as a horrible amoral abomination, and not a matter of course, and where there is a tacit assumption that no one person has a divine right to be better than another, even if that assumption is broken as often as not. I find probes to Mars a lot more romantic than trying to plough a field with a pair of oxen, and blasting particles at the speed of light under half of Europe a lot more alluring than riding a horse for days between cities.

I love the past. I know it, and feel emotionally involved in it. I may even want to live there, for myself. But I would never want the world to return to it.

Svetlana What an excellent review! You totally summed up my feelings about it in a much better way I ever could )) thank you for that.

Jane Fujiwara Yes! I was very turned off by the over romanticized past. I think Midnight in Paris handled the idea on that very well.

message 5: by Mon (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mon Graffito I was about to write the same thing, maybe not as good as you did. I even found a title for the review: Describing Daguerreotypes.
Im not glad when I see failure but I thought I was mad on my own, being the only reader who thought the book was such a case.

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